I’m always up for a prequel, and so the Arkham-verse delivers. Arkham Origins is a prequel to Rocksteady’s excellent series but one might notice the lack of Rocksteady’s name attached here. This game was actually developed in-house at Warner Bros.’ Montreal studio as Rocksteady were developing the finale to their franchise, Arkham Knight. We get a game of incremental upgrades – Origins does a lot of little steps forward but ones which are balanced out by some awkward choices which pull it back at times.
Batman: Arkham Origins (PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released Oct 2013 | Developed / Published: Warner Bros.
Arkham Origins is set within Bruce Wayne’s first 2 years of being Batman. People still think he’s more or less an urban legend, which suits his campaign of terror against Gotham’s criminals. It draws inspiration from graphic novels like Year One – this is a pre-supervillain Gotham, a city not living under the grip of supervillains but infested with corruption of a decidedly more realistic sort. Warring mob bosses control the streets and crooked cops and politicians take bribes and handouts to look the other way – Roman Sionis, or Black Mask, leads one major gang while a newcomer to the arms trade, the diminutive and cruel Penguin, has been systematically wiping out the Falcone family. Our story here is set one frigid Christmas Eve; after a breakout at Blackgate prison, Batman learns that Black Mask has offered a $50 million bounty on his head and a group of the world’s most lethal assassins are looking to collect.
If that were all Origins had to offer it would be perfectly fine, and I’m sure some folk would have wanted nothing more. This is a more gritty Batman story than the wilder narratives in Asylum and City and I can see the appeal. That said it feels like a difficult sell to people who aren’t that invested in DC and see only a group of broadly unknown D-List villains in it like Firefly or Shiva. Still, I think some of the portrayals of the villains here can stand alongside Asylum or City in terms of great writing – this is surely the best version of Bane we’ve seen outside of the comics as his presentation here takes cues from Knightfall where he isn’t just a bruiser but cunning and intelligent to boot.
But that isn’t all Origins brings to the table. I’m sure this would be a spoiler were it not blinding obvious from all the advertising at the time but this is actually a game about the Joker – how could it not be? This is Arkham “Origins” after all and you could hardly have Batman’s early days without his first fight against the Clown Prince of Crime. You could rightly groan at yet another game featuring the Joker as the primary villain but I think the further you go through the series the more apparent it becomes that it’s not just a series about Batman but one which specifically explores his relationship with his arch-nemesis and in that respect Origins delivers as the budding realisation that the two are reflections of one another is sown.
Combat is largely unchanged from City. Origins continues the franchise’s balletic freeflow system of strikes, counters, and racking up lengthy combo chains before unleashing powerful takedowns to incapacitate enemies. A handful of new gadgets are available, most notably the shock gloves which power up as you fight and then can be activated to tear through thugs. It feels like there’s quite a heavy emphasis on combat compared to previous games with even seemingly small encounters on the streets typically attracting more and more nearby baddies.
Stealth is also mostly untouched – why fix what isn’t broken, after all? Origins features perhaps the best predator sequences yet so far in the series; most rooms strike the balance between giving you gargoyles in useful positions and encouraging you to drop to the ground level and vary up your takedowns by having guards more inclined to hide away from your perches. It doesn’t take very long before the sequences are stuffed with guards though and with that comes a thrilling level of difficulty.
In a joyous revelation finally the series gets bosses right. A long-lasting bugbear of mine is that Rocksteady seem to have struggled with creating good boss fights. City showed some promise at least with one late-game encounter being by far the best fight in the series at that point though it was admittedly a low bar to beat; it’s perhaps a bit galling that Warner Bros’ in-house team at Montreal have done a far better job on the boss fights here. Each of the assassins who comes after Batman gets their own fight and they’re spread across both combat and stealth sequences; one particularly memorable fight within the first third of the game is against a fan-favourite DC villain and pushes the player’s skill in combat to the limit, with rapid-fire counter prompts and prompts which require you to wait to counter in a split-second.
The side missions a bit of a mixed bag here though. A couple of side quests are well-themed, such as chasing down the bombs planted by the terrorist Anarky or the rebranding of the Riddler trophies as datapacks gathered by the newly-established information broker Enigma. However most are unfortunately bland such as chasing down drug canisters hidden by Black Mask or solving generic crimes; it’s the issue with setting a game during the early pre-supervillain days of Batman’s career, and by necessity his work involves tackling a more realistic and infinitely less interesting brand of crime.
I’m never especially bothered by the Batman: Arkham scores since they’re usually mostly just quite good film-style soundtracks; it’s all lots of violins and brass, which is terribly very exciting but not interesting to listen to either in or out of the game. The previous 2 Arkham games haven’t wowed me but they’ve been serviceable; Origins is much the same but with a notable exception coming in form of the main menu theme, which mixes a low, dark Batman theme with Carol of the Bells to match the Christmas setting of the game and it works spectacularly well.
The voice actors are mostly hits as is usual with the franchise at this point but it’s worth noting the two big recasts for Origins. To represent the characters in their younger days both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill have been replaced for Batman and the Joker by Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker respectively. Smith does a good job as Batman; he sounds a little like Conroy’s style but definitely goes in for a gruffer Batman voice which kind of fits as the younger version of the character here is less refined and more brutal as he fights to make Gotham’s criminals fear him. Baker had an undoubtedly tougher gig as he voices the Clown Prince of Crime and this is a weaker link in the cast – it feels like Baker has tried to imitate Hamill at points which is an unfortunate necessity of being in the Arkham-verse canon, but the voice doesn’t suit him and often feels like Baker is constantly flitting between voicings for the character. I can hear bits of Injustice’s Richard Epcar in there as well for example, rather than having his own unique take.
In general the character models are quite high fidelity, but to a surprising degree for a game of this age. The franchise has always looked good but everything certainly looks even more impressive here, even without the benefit of a remaster like the earlier games. That’s the step forward; the design of Gotham is the step back though. City had a brilliant dark neon vibe to it, full of character and life but Origins regrettably strips that away. The game world is split between North and South Gotham; the North is built on City’s map but obviously set well before the walls of Arkham City went up around it. Landmarks like the museum, the courthouse, the church and the steel mill will all be familiar to returning players and around those the map has been changed and expanded a little bit but it feeds into the sense that this was a mission pack sequel. The southern section is all new, centered around the GCPD building and downtown Gotham but it ultimately feels very boxy – there’s none of the street-level character that City brought and because it’s set on Christmas Eve, often your vision is partially obscured by snow and between it and the buildings you find yourself looking at a bland grey malaise.
Though I definitely enjoyed Arkham Origins, it is regrettable that it was despite a gametime marred by performance issues. Frame rate drops and stuttering was a recurring issue during my playtime; the game particularly seems to struggle when exiting cutscenes, and there’s also notable frame rate hangs when entering or exiting a building. There were never any substantial or extended drops, but even a few missed frames on a regular basis is a problem for a AAA release. I also noticed audio distortion occurring multiple times throughout the game, which is all but unacceptable for a major release; sound production is a fine art but it felt like the levels for Origins hadn’t been well balanced. At least once I had Batman glitch and become entirely invisible before getting stuck in scenery, and getting stuck in the map also happens to guards – Batman doesn’t kill but apparently he doesn’t have anything against punching a guy so hard he phases through the floor and into the eternal falling dimension beyond the game map. It all smacks of a rushed title, which is a real shame.
The fact that it’s rushed and slightly buggy, as well as being a mission pack sequel are large obstacles to loving Origins. Still, the Arkham games are made to a high standard of quality, as befits a AAA game of its time, and it does still deliver an enjoyable experience. It has its detractors and fairly so but even its faults didn’t stop me from having fun – for fans of the series or just of the Batman it’s definitely worth playing.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.